Awards season now a global hunt for film gem

Is there a small film heading unnoticed for Venice, Telluride or Toronto that could become this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire”?

The race for the Academy Awards begins in earnest with the start of the fall festival season. With 10 picture nominations up for grabs this year, and less in the way of obvious Oscar bait coming from the dwindling band of studio specialty labels, the field is wide open for a little indie to make a big impression.

Surprises, by definition, are impossible to predict. But the stormy climate for independent film financing in the past 12 months means the next “Slumdog” might not actually exist.

“You’d have to question if a film like that would actually get the greenlight now, because people are so risk averse at the moment,” says David Garrett of Summit Entertainment. “The rot set in around the time of Toronto last year. Anyone who was contemplating a greenlight then probably changed their mind, so there are far fewer things like ‘The Wrestler’ or ‘Hurt Locker’ coming through now.”

Indeed, this year’s little indie that could might turn out to be that leftover hit from last year’s Venice and Toronto, overshadowed at the time by “Slumdog” and the Mickey Rourke comeback show.

U.S. rights to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” sold to Summit at Toronto, but the film didn’t get released until June. Since then, the awards buzz has built as it moved from city to city, using local festivals such as Seattle and SXSW to launch. It’s proof that you can never start too early in the Oscar race.

Nicolas Chartier of sales company Voltage Pictures says the Venice-to-Toronto sales strategy worked so perfectly for him last year with “Hurt Locker” that he’s repeating this year with a very different movie, albeit one without obvious Oscar pretension — George Romero’s “Survival of the Dead.”

“Venice is very expensive, but it was worth it for ‘Hurt Locker.’ You get buzz for Europe from Venice, and even for Japan, because many more Japanese press attend Venice. Then, when you arrive in Toronto, people have heard about the Venice reaction. It’s no coincidence that there were two movies sold in Toronto to North America last year, ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Hurt Locker,’ and both were in Venice.”

Venice 2009 has a lot of American movies, but most, like the Romero pic, are edgy indie genre fare, some have no U.S. distribution and on paper none are classic Oscar contenders. But then, neither was “The Wrestler.”

Since the Academy Awards moved up a month to late February, Venice has emerged as a key launchpad of Oscar hopefuls, such as “Atonement” and “Brokeback Mountain,” but it’s anybody’s guess whether pics such as “The Road,” “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Life During Wartime” or “A Single Man” could suddenly jump into contention after a fest rave.

Studio presence, aside from Disney’s “Toy Story” shindig, is light on the Lido, though Paramount owns some territories on Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and Warner is taking “The Informant!” Cost is one big reason why the studios and the big sales companies with prestige titles prefer to stay away.

Toronto has become correspondingly more vital with the shrinkage of the U.S. specialty market — not necessarily as a place to launch a hypothetical Oscar campaign but simply as a place for indies to secure distribution. Many prestige pics that would previously have been produced or at least pre-bought by American distribs are now traveling to Toronto without a U.S. deal in place.

The U.K.’s HanWay Films is taking six pics to Toronto this year and nothing to Venice. Two already have U.S. deals — Miramax pre-bought “The Boys Are Back,” and Sony Pictures Classics picked up “An Education” in a Sundance bidding war. But “Creation,” “Harry Brown,” “Perrier’s Bounty” and “Triage” are looking for a home.

“Going to any festival costs money, and we have to focus our resources very carefully,” says HanWay’s Tim Haslam. “In Toronto you have North American audiences who really want to see your movies queuing round the block, and that’s cool.”

The generous Toronto audience likes just about everything, but no one knows what will click with the buyers. “The list of available films going into Toronto can be misleading and usually bears no relationship to what comes out at the other end,” says Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley.

Sealing a U.S. deal in early September and gearing up a release and an awards campaign in the same year is challenging, but Searchlight proved it was possible with “The Wrestler” (and “Slumdog,” which it picked up just before Telluride). Finding a gem at Sundance and then holding it back for the fall fest circuit, as SPC has done with “An Education,” allows a more measured approach.

“The key is not to show it too much in between,” says SPC topper Michael Barker. “Toronto is such an audience-friendly festival, and with a film like this, that’s the context in which you want to operate. ‘An Education’ is the type of film you want to screen a lot, because it’s not necessarily obvious, so we may then take it to a few festivals in the South. And we do like to use a lot of festivals where Academy members might be present, like New York and the AFI Festival in Los Angeles.”

Barker is also using Toronto to launch “The Damned United,” for which he hopes Michael Sheen might attract kudos attention, and Cannes prizewinner “A Prophet,” a potential foreign-language contender.

Last year, an unusually large number of theoretical Oscar contenders missed the big festivals — either by design, or because they simply weren’t ready — and premiered in November or December, with mixed results. But “Slumdog” and “The Wrestler” proved that the classic fairy tale of festival discovery still works a powerful magic.

This year, the festivals have already launched several runners, whether “Hurt Locker” from 12 months ago, “An Education” and “Precious” from Sundance, or “Up,” “Bright Star” and maybe even “The White Ribbon” from Cannes. Toronto will surely add more titles to that list.

“I think last year was just a coincidence that so many films arrived late,” says Barker. “All along, ever since they moved the Oscars, people were thinking this festival route is very important. You’d better get those Academy members early, or they might not see your film.”

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